Aktualisiert: 2. Mai 2020
Yesterday the whole world celebrated Human Rights Day to promote the importance of human rights worldwide and to raise awareness of the essentiality of human rights to a humane and noble life. Most importantly, the day recognises the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was introduced 71 years ago, after the horrors of World War II. This year the celebration was particularly vital in Bolivia due to the recent waves of violence and human rights violations which have severely shaken up the whole Bolivian society. Indeed, Human Rights Day offered a great chance to reflect and review the past events that have taken place in Bolivia. Thus, this article will analyse the state of human rights, including state violence and torture, regarding the recent political crisis. Moreover, the perceptions and actions of ITEI will be highlighted as well.
THE CONCEPT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document in the whole world, yet numerous people still lack the very basic human rights and many people are unaware of their rights. Nonetheless, the declaration has fundamental importance as a universally accepted global standard of human rights as it has stood firm through times. Besides, the UDHR has improved human rights of numerous people and granted human dignity for many of the most vulnerable people who were previously dismissed. However, perhaps even more importantly, the declaration lays the normative foundation for a better world to strive for.
Human rights are critical for our everyday lives because whenever human rights are abandoned, we face higher risks of violence and conflict. Besides, the realisation of human rights is crucial for sustainable development, as without equality, justice and freedom, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved. Indeed, achievements in human rights transform directly to progress in the SDGs and the same happens vice versa. Moreover, human rights violations impose severe consequences on individuals, communities and the entire humanity. These include physical damages, psychological suffering and decrease of human dignity – and many other impacts. Therefore, protecting human rights is of extreme significance.
Despite human rights being virtually universally accepted and protecting them is in the centre of international attention, human rights violations are regular and grave worldwide. Bolivia is one of the countries with the highest amount of human rights violations and this has been the case recently during the political turmoil that started after the fraudulent elections of October 20th. The political crisis saw at least 33 deaths – most of whom died on injuries inflicted by the authorities, over a thousand injured and almost 1500 arrested.
While there were violence and human rights violations ever since the first mass protests started on the 21st of October, the most vicious cycle of state violence took place after the interim president Añez ordered the military on the streets and granted them immunity from any crimes committed while restoring peace in Bolivia. The decree of impunity, which permitted security forces to “kill at will”, severely worsened the situation as more than half of the casualties have come afterwards. In addition to inciting violence, the decree also denies justice from the people. Thus, the decree severely violated human rights in multiple ways.
The security forces repeatedly practised excessive use of force by shooting tear gas and live bullets against the protesters. The two starkest cases of excessive use of force occurred in Sacaba and Senkata. First, on November 15th, thousands of mostly unarmed protesters demonstrated peacefully in Sacaba, close to Cochabamba. The protesters’ march into the city of Cochabamba was violently halted by the military and police who fired tear gas and live bullets into the crowd. This resulted in 9 deaths and 122 wounded. Just four days later, on November 19th, 8 more were killed and numerous injured when the military opened fire against blockaders at the Senkata gas plant in El Alto.
The transitional government was prompt in defending the military, claiming that only “armoured criminals” were shot and that many got hit in the crossfire – not by security officials’ bullets. However, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has condemned these bloodbaths by blaming the government troops for unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, as well as widespread repression of indigenous people. While thorough investigations are needed to determine the exact details, it can be surely noted that the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials have been violated by the Bolivian security forces.
Torture, ill-treatment and inhumane prison conditions have been actively used to obtain confessions and to intimidate and punish the detained suspects. During ITEI’s visits to prisons and pre-detention cells to observe the conditions of prisoners and to collect their testimonies (90 victim testimonies so far), ITEI has discovered many cases of police brutality and torture. There have been clear incidents of physical torture: prisoners with direct physical injuries, such as blows and beatings inflicted by the security officials.
Psychological torture has also been vivid, as parents have been separated from their children without any reason, and detainees have been threatened and intimidated verbally and by firearms. Additionally, there have been many cases where the police have published the details and/or images of detainees without any proof for the accusations. These public false accusations have severely humiliated the detainees, created stigmatization and installed sentiments of injustice, anger and hate.
Furthermore, the detainees are subjected to prison conditions that fall short of the international treaties of Nelson Mandela, Havana and Bangkok which set the minimum conditions of humane prison treatment. Some of the overwhelming shortcomings of pre-detention cells that ITEI has observed first-hand are:
· Overcrowding and inadequate access to basic resources, such as water, food and sanitation – limited toilet times, no showering for days and controlled eating times;
· Smelly, dirty and unhygienic cells;
· Coldness and lack of fresh air - there are no windows or heating;
· Limited access to medical care and legal advice.
These aforementioned conditions fulfil the definition of biological torture. This means that hundreds of preventive detention prisoners have been subjected to biological torture during the political crisis. Moreover, belongings – including cellphones and identification cards of foreign citizens – of many detained have been seized by the prison officials at FELCC and UTOP.
The Bolivian already malfunctioning judicial system has been even more dysfunctional and repressive during the political crisis. Almost 1500 have been arrested within the last month, many of them based on “sedition”, "public instigation", “terrorism” and other such arbitrary accusations without proof. By arresting people in high numbers, the authorities have simply aimed to boost their public relations by showing that they are providing security to the citizens and “fighting terrorism”. However, the price of human security has been high as the lives of many have been deteriorated and interfered by detentions and torture. Furthermore, there have been widespread violations of due process rights. Considering the arbitrary detentions, violations of due process and state violence against the protesters, the impartiality and fairness of the Bolivian judicial system comes seriously under question.
Press freedom has also been violated during the protests. For example, international journalists have been harassed by tear gas, and national journalists have been intimidated and threatened. This has caused some media outlets to cease reporting and/or install hefty self-censorship. This is very harmful because that way many human rights violations have remained untold and people have received very one-sided opinions. Moreover, the lack of press freedom feeds impunity as human rights crimes have not been covered in media and public discussion.
ITEI’S PERCEPTIONS AND ACTIONS
ITEI has been deeply concerned with the recent events in Bolivia. While we recognize that human rights violations have been committed by all sides, ITEI as an institution investigating and attending matters related to torture and state violence is strictly focused on human rights violations committed by the state. Besides, while there were human rights violations by the police against the pro-democracy protesters, our priority is the actions committed by the transitional government of Jeanine Añez as these were predominantly against the most vulnerable groups of Bolivian society – the indigenous, rural and poor people. ITEI emphases helping the most vulnerable groups because they lack resources and access to receive support and their voice is often marginalised at the national level.
ITEI recognizes that state violence, torture and other forms of human rights violations have had severe physical and psychological consequences on individuals, communities of the affected people and the whole Bolivian society – specifically on the indigenous population. Firstly, state violence, torture and other forms of human rights violations deteriorate the physical and psychological well-being of the tortured and violated people, as well as their families. Secondly, entire communities are impacted by the destruction of the dignity and will of the peoples affected directly or indirectly. Thirdly, the indigenous populations have been fiercely affected by state violence directed at them because it has (re)produced the perception of indigenous peoples as inferior to rest. Yet most importantly, ITEI is an independent organization aiming to listen to everyone and give a voice for the marginalized.
To support the affected people, their families and the entire communities, ITEI provides medical, psychological and psychotherapeutic attention for everyone affected people. In our office in the centre of La Paz, we provide medical and psychological attention to treat the direct impacts of state violence, torture and other forms of human rights violations, as well as support for people in their rehabilitation and overcoming of the consequences. Besides, ITEI provides medical and psychological attention in the different prisons of La Paz. Furthermore, we have provided help for the whole communities by providing attention and organizing events in Senkata. Finally, ITEI works towards building a collective knowledge of the events that happened in Bolivia during the political crisis by collecting testimonies so that the whole Bolivian society can come to terms with the past.
Yesterday, ITEI also published a statement about Human Rights Day, including recommendations for the international community. The statement can be read here.
11th of December 2019
Valtteri Nurminen, ITEI Volunteer